A bar in Perry, Fla., admitted yesterday that one of its waitresses ordered a black Maryland legislator to a back room before he could be served.
The admission by the owner of the Perry Package Store & Lounge was made in an agreement with Florida prosecutors in response to a complaint filed by Maryland Del. Talmadge Branch, who was traveling in Florida this month.
Under the agreement, the bar owner will avoid prosecution on state criminal charges, but he and the waitress must pay fines of $500 each and write letters of apology to Branch. The bar also faces the possible loss of its liquor license and remains the subject of state and federal civil rights investigations.
"I hope this sends a message to other businesses that are practicing that sort of conduct in Florida to stop," Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat and chairman of Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus, said yesterday.
He did not rule out filing a lawsuit.
"We'll see what the other attorneys have to say," he said. "But for now, I think the [Florida] state attorney acted appropriately."
The agreement, reached through a Florida pretrial diversion program, requires bar owner David W. Holton to provide his employees with a written anti-discrimination policy and report monthly to program officials. A misdemeanor charge of refusing to serve a person based on race will be dismissed in six months if all conditions of the agreement are met.
"Technically, it is not a plea of guilty," said State Attorney Jerry Blair. "They entered into a diversion program to avoid actually going into court."
Branch's complaint has brought widespread attention to Perry, a small north Florida town where he stopped for a beer the afternoon of Feb. 3 while on his way to visit friends in Tallahassee.
A waitress at the lounge told him she could not serve him in the bar and that he would have to go to a back room, both sides agree. She also told Branch she was preparing to close the bar for cleaning.
Branch said he later learned that the bar's practices were "common knowledge" in Perry, population 12,000.
"The overall attitude of people in that town is that you don't enter into the front to be served," he said. "Blacks are generally served from the window and have to go in the back to drink."
Greg Parker, attorney for Holton, said yesterday that his client was not in the bar when Branch arrived. He also said there might be a misperception among blacks about the bar's practices.
"What I think is people make their choice where to go," Parker said. "Nobody has ever spoken out about this, and you've got to ask why. Are people in complicity with this?"
He acknowledged that several other African-Americans have come forward in recent weeks with complaints similar to Branch's. He called the waitress' behavior "regrettable."
"Mr. Branch insisted on having his beer, and he should have been served," Parker said. "We are going to issue a sincere and humble apology."
The agreement with the state attorney does not affect investigations by the Florida attorney general and the U.S. attorney in Florida into possible civil rights violations.
Also pending is a six-charge complaint filed Monday by Florida alcoholic beverage regulators, who are calling for revocation of the bar's liquor license because of a "long-standing policy of discrimination" that is "immoral" and violates state anti-discrimination laws.
The Florida Department of Business and Regulation last revoked a liquor license in 1994, when a St. Augustine bar was found to have refused service to an African-American man.
Parker said his client will fight the department's complaint.
"Mr. Holton just continues to deny that there would be any credible evidence that he had any policy to discriminate against people based on race," he said.
Branch said the episode gave him a deep understanding of the discrimination faced by those who fought to end segregation.
"It still baffles me that they would ask a human being to do this," he said. "I thought segregation was over with."